Meredith Banasiak: Person-centered design means each person’s experience matters

Meredith Banasiak
Meredith Banasiak: Director of Research for BA/Science at Boulder Associates Architects.

Meredith Banasiak is a Director of Research for BA/Science, a research and innovation group of Boulder Associates Architects. As a former faculty member in architecture and environmental design, Meredith integrated neuroscience concepts into her studio and human behavior courses to support designing for human diversity across physical, sensory and cognitive abilities. She gained experience as a Research Assistant at the Krasnow Institute at George Mason University and during her time as a Research Associate with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture. Meredith is a Fellow with the Centre for Conscious Design, and has published in psychology, medicine and architectural research journals and books.

Natalia Olszewska: Could you tell us what happened that as an architecture practitioner you have started to lean towards neuroscience?

Meredith Banasiak: Well, what we do isn’t very different from who we are. All my life I have struggled with sensory stimulation from the environment and was not able to inhibit intense sensory stimuli as a child. I would be in places where I felt like my brain was being hijacked by my surroundings. And because of what was happening around me, I couldn’t control my attention, my emotions and my cognition.

So, when I was growing up, I wanted to both understand what was happening in my brain, but also I wanted to design the environment, so this wouldn’t happen to others. I feel like I’ve spent my education preparing for a career that didn’t exist yet. I have just followed what I was curious about, which was natural sciences and the classics. I studied Latin, Greek and classical archeology.

Natalia: Could you tell us more about when and how did you connect with the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture?

Meredith: I had just finished my degree in architecture in Arizona and was practicing. I knew I needed something more. I knew that science would come into what I needed to do, as well as the humanities and the classics, but I didn’t know how to put those pieces together yet. I spent a lot of time just searching. Then I stumbled across the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture, ANFA.

I wrote to John P. Eberhard, who was the founding president of ANFA, in a very passionate way and I said that I must be a part of this initiative since it’s everything I believe in. He invited me to come out to San Diego where they were doing a workshop on the design of elementary schools.

I drove from Phoenix and this was a six hour drive. I remember just driving across the desert for the six hours and being so excited and nervous. I knew upon meeting him that my life was going to change forever. Being part of that workshop and meeting John was a pivotal moment for me. I also went to the Salk Institute for the first time and had one of those life-changing experiences – seeing that setting and understanding the building was designed to inspire scientists who were its occupants.

John talked about his vision for the future. He wanted to set up an ANFA office in Washington D.C. to try to get some funding for neuro-architecture research, and invited me to join him there. John was a visionary. ANFA was the last legacy he left us, but he was an innovator all his life – like in his work with architectural education, and with the National Academy of Sciences’ building research advisory board in the US.

ANFA called us pioneers early on, because we were pioneering a completely new discipline. That was in 2005 when I joined, so it’s been over 15 years now. I thought we would have reached a tipping point by now, and looking at what you are doing now is a proof for me that we’re getting there.

Michal Matlon: The people who create architecture and evaluate it often think about it very strongly in terms of humanities. If someone with a background in psychology or science comes into the architectural domain where everyone is expecting to work in the humanities paradigm, how can they demonstrate that insights from neuroscience or psychology can also be very important and useful in the process?

Meredith Banasiak
John Paul Eberhard: The founding president of the Academy of Neuroscience for Architecture (middle) and Meredith Banasiak (to the right).

Meredith: Regarding humanities, I was a member of faculty at the University of Colorado for 10 years and I didn’t see quite enough of them. In graduate school I had a mentor who had a saying about Alberti and Palladio: “Alberti was a humanist first and then he became an architect. Palladio was a builder and architect first and later received humanist training. The order didn’t matter so much, but we need both to design for humanity”.

My background in archeology helped me to understand those connections between people and place. Archeology, for me, is just doing architecture in reverse order. Archeologists study physical artifacts and building ruins to understand the humans and the cultures who built them. Architects study humans (although that’s not always the case) to understand what physical environments can best support them.

So it’s the same equation, but they’re doing it in different order. That equation was well-defined by Kurt Lewin and his force field analysis theory. He was working in the middle of the 20th century as a social psychologist and said that behavior is a function of the individual (I) and the environment (E).

How do we solve for the “E”? I think too often the environment just gets built and then we try to change the individual. I see us medicating people or we self-medicate because the environment is impacting us and causing us stress. We can’t adapt and so we change the “I” instead of the “E”. I feel that humanities knowledge is really an important piece and I don’t think there’s enough of that in our educational system.

Your point though, about science. There’s a UX researcher, Erika Hall, who said “facts and evidence alone don’t sway people in power” and our country (the United States) has certainly learned that this year with COVID. Facts and evidence are certainly important and as researchers, it is really hard for us to understand that facts and evidence aren’t enough, having that empathy piece is also really important.

Designers are not necessarily drawn to our field to study science. I used to think that maybe designers would need to be able to read the scholarly literature and understand it to be able to apply it to design, but I don’t believe that anymore. The amount of information is too much, the skill to translate it can be complex, and I don’t think that’s why they entered this field, and there are other ways of helping them achieve an understanding of how to use the evidence, like through empathy and embodied cognition experiences.

City of Hope Newport Beach Cancer Center
City of Hope Newport Beach Cancer Center by Boulder Associates. Source:

Michal: Sarah Williams Goldhagen mentioned in one of our previous interviews that now we want architects to learn about many new topics, which they were not trained or educated in, because they were focusing on building, designing and constructing. It probably really depends on the specific schools, but sometimes you get a whole semester about how to build pig farms instead of a semester in environmental psychology. The question may be not about how to convince architects to learn all of this, but maybe how to actually make the architecture process include more people from different disciplines. How could such a process look like in the 21st century?

Meredith: At Boulder Associates, we have created a group called BA/Science, which includes all our research-based disciplines – sustainability, operational process improvement, evidence-based, and human-centered design. We’re really fortunate being a medium-sized firm because we’re still small enough to be able to work together instead of having various domains siloed out, which is the way they often work in bigger firms.

I think that as environments, materials and technology become more adaptive and responsive, the design process won’t stop at occupancy which is when our contracts currently end. There’s this alignment phase that can keep going after construction and throughout occupancy because we realize now that our built environments are dynamic, not static. A building is an ecosystem which needs to be supported over its lifetime.

Natalia: You mentioned adaptable and responsive buildings. These are some of the characteristics of biological systems. What do you think about Michael Arbib’s notion of neuromorphic design, that is, the design of buildings which, in a way, possess brains?

Meredith: It sounds really sci-fi but we are getting there. I’ll give you an example. Last year an inpatient behavioral health unit opened, which we had designed. The unit was the first inpatient behavioral health unit to have fully tunable lighting throughout, even patient bathrooms have it. Tunable lighting supports circadian rhythms and changes over a 24-hour cycle to support our sleep and wake cycles. Maybe it’s not neuromorphic architecture, but it’s certainly creating a dynamic, or morphing, environment, one which is choreographed to change in support of human biological systems.

Natalia: You’ve been in the field for 15 years. Could you tell us more about the translational process between neuroscience and design? How do you create a link between a piece of research, evidence, and translate it into design language?

Meredith: 15 years ago, we were at a different place than today. Starting out, we had only neuroscientists to rely on for our evidence. But then, there appeared people like Upali Nanda, who you interviewed last time, someone who had a foot in both camps, architecture and cognitive science. People like Upali became what I would call “the bridges”. Now we have some academic programs which are educating people in both disciplines, and you are both bridges too.

Bridges, in my mind, have a more comprehensive understanding of both fields, and can understand neuroscience enough to be able to apply it in the right way to design, and to set up appropriate studies for evaluating environments. We don’t need to still only rely on neuroscientists. They can keep doing what they are best at – basic research.

For example, neuroscience discovered the photoreceptors at the back of the retina which are sensitive to blue light. Those photoreceptors govern melatonin production and the sleep-wake cycles in response to what is commonly referred to as blue light. For the creation of new knowledge like this, we need neuroscience. There’s no question about it. But we don’t need neuroscientists to do building scale research. Lighting scientists who understand both the science of how light impacts humans, and the science of lighting design are a great bridge for studying how this knowledge is applied in built environments.

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Michal: So maybe we don’t need to bring the basic-research neuroscientists to architecture, and we don’t need to teach architects all the neuroscience, but we need this kind of a third person, a bridge, as you said. Is this the birth of a new profession?

Meredith: I think that’s a great model for architecture. Cognitive science is a nice bridge between neuroscience and architecture because it is interdisciplinary and includes knowledge from neuroscience, as well as from other fields such as behavioral and social sciences like psychology. We can study an issue using multi-disciplinary methods, and across various scales of experience And, we can use surrogate measures for brain activity like heart rate variability and electrodermal activity.

For example, I’ve got all my wearables on today for you. I have a ring on, which measures electrodermal activity, a proxy for stress level. At Boulder Associates, we do a lot of patient journey mapping, trying to understand where a patient’s stress points are so that we can eliminate the stress where that is possible. Sometimes, you can’t take away stress. So how do we design the environment to support patients in those moments of anxiety?

Until now, we’ve relied on focus groups for people to tell us where they’re stressed in their journey. And that’s not really regarded as reliable evidence by some people. So we started using these rings to develop what we’re calling “mood maps”. We can track a person’s location in the building using bluetooth sensors, and measure what their stress is to quantify the stress points in their journey and inform design decision making.

Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor
Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor. Source:

Natalia: We’ve got technologies, which can tell us more about the interactions between buildings and users. We are moving into the domain of observation and measurement of systems. But architects traditionally speak mostly about subjective and cultural dimensions. For example they use terms such as atmospheres. Are these outdated in the 21st century? I am also referring to this year’s ANFA conference theme – the quantified self, quantified buildings and AI.

Meredith: Well, words matter and we’ve always had this crisis of vocabulary at ANFA. We held workshops, which brought together leading neuroscientists and leading architects and we asked them to have conversations. It was very much like the Tower of Babel. They couldn’t have a conversation because they were speaking two different languages, even though they were talking about the same thing. We went round and round about wayfinding versus navigation. They kind of mean the same thing, but we couldn’t get to a place to agree on their similar meanings because they were using two different words.

I think it’s the same thing with atmospheres. For architects that word feels like it describes a subjective ethereal thing. To me, it’s actually a user’s entire sensory experience. Understanding and measuring how our senses are interacting together is absolutely important for designers to choreograph, and for researchers to measure to optimize design. Architects may call it ‘atmosphere’, and neuroscientists probably have some word that describes our sensory experience, but I think we’re all talking about the same thing. So we can measure what has traditionally been considered subjective experience. Vocabulary has been a barrier to having a collaboration between the different disciplines.

But back to your point about whether we need to measure everything or if we can rely on subjective and cultural experience. We need both. This goes back to why empathy and stories are so important. For me, person-centered design means each person’s experience matters. We want to honor the subjective and the cultural experience. That’s how we start a project. We start the project with stories from the users and especially try to make sure that voices of vulnerable groups are represented. Only then we go into more evidence-based methods and collect larger sample sizes based on hypotheses informed by these user stories.

Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor
Therme Vals by Peter Zumthor. Source:

Michal: For our final question, could you name a building or a space where you think that all this scientific knowledge about people is well applied and integrated? Could you give us an example and explain why you chose it?

Meredith: The building that had the most profound effect on me was Peter Zumthor’s Therme Vals. As I mentioned at the beginning, sensory experience has always been so important for me. Zumthor designed Therme Vals in such a way as to activate all our senses so they complement one another and the surrounding context, which is the Swiss Alps, in a highly choreographed way.

There is such a wonderful correspondence between all the senses in this building. All senses work together to communicate the same message to the brain and my brain made sense of that environment. And Zumthor is the master of crossmodal perception (interaction between different sensory channels). You see something textured and you feel it tactilely even though you’re not physically touching it. So long as the sensory stimuli is not communicating conflicting information, the more senses you can recruit in an experience, the more neurons fire, and the stronger the memory and sense of place.

That’s why my strongest memories of places are in nature settings, settings with similar thick sensory environments to Therme Vals, like a jungle in Belize, and on a remote mountain top at night in Assisi, Italy. We can learn a lot from nature and design for sensory correspondence to create strong memories of place and better environmental legibility.

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